When will the blood-spilling game end in Syria ?

By: Shubham Ghosh
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The ghastly execution of innocent civilians in Syria continue to haunt the world but yet no substantial move is visible to stop the Bashar al-Assad regime from committing the crime against humanity. The massacre in Houla on May 25, 2012, where over 100 people, including many woman and children, were killed mercilessly show that the Syrian establishment is little afraid to carry on with its ruthless policy.

Bashar al-Assad

Demands for an international intervention in the Levant state is soaring. The Assad regime has been eliminating the popular discontent with the help of military forces and militia (Shabiha) for the last 14 months but the Houla massacre has led to a desperate call to stop such onslaught. Nothing sort of an ouster of Assad is the call of the day, as it has been the case with some other tyrannical regimes of the Middle East. Several countries including the USA, Germany, France, Canada, Great Britain and others have threatened to expel Syrian diplomats. The Syrian crisis is intensifying and the international community is indeed on a collision course with the Assad regime.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anna has embarked on a mission to defuse the tension but few quarters believe that he would be successful. Annan's plan is to reach a compromise between Assad and his opposition but according to most observers, the very aim of such mission is impossible for it tries to effect a marriage between tyranny (read Assad) and democracy (demand of anti-Assad forces). Critics have been pointing out that Annan's pursuit for an unlikely result is only giving Assad an opportunity to stretch his stay in power and continue with his ruthless action. Earlier, the Arab League had tried to persuade Assad not to use military force against the unarmed civilians but in vain.

Russia and the People's Republic of China are the only two countries which have opposed any plan of foreign intervention in Syria. They have vetoed UN resolutions condemning the Assad government and want to give more time to Annan's mission. But their stand would also be seriously challenged after the Houla carnage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently blamed both the Syrian government and the rebels for the massacre but his voice seemed to be more in tune with anti-Assad quarters which hold him squarely responsible for the poor security of common Syrians.

Moreover, Russia will risk its own economic interest if it continues to blindly defend its Middle Eastern ally. President Putin is due to meet the German and French heads of state over developing Russian industries. Annoying the West by backing a tyrant may not earn Russia the cooperation it seeks.

The massacre at Houla is different from the earlier state-sponsored atrocities. Apart from the nature of the killings, the Houla incident also took place when UN monitors were present in Syria, giving it all the more exposure to the outside world. Some sections of the Russian media tried to turn the table accusing the West of trying to make Houla case a pretext for intervening in Syria, but there is no denying that Moscow is not finding it easy anymore. “Russia has lost its ability to manage the situation,” is how a Russian foreign policy expert put it.

Assad or no Assad, Russia can not afford to lose its influence on Syria, one of its biggest client in arms trade and host to Russia's only warm-water port outside the domain of the former Soviet Union. Not to mention, it's also a game of prestige of losing out to the West. Moscow has a big responsibility now, ie, to retreat from the mess in a skilled manner without harming much its interests. In fact, many experts believe that Russia is even more powerful than the US in effecting a peaceful transfer of power in Syria.

China, the other Security Council member to have vetoed the outside intervention in Syria, said such a move would worsen the situation and lead to a forced regime change in Syria led by the West, something which countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have witnessed in the recent past.

According to a newspaper published by China's Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, half of the population of Syria is 'Assad loyalist' and any effort to alter the situation will leave it in pain. It is not surprising that a country which itself has had a little tryst with democracy, will speak in such lines. It is China, after all, which had made the Tiananmen Square an infamous memory.

But what has been the role of the US, the 'most vocal advocate of democracy'? Particularly, the US have been instrumental in dethroning tyrants and militant regimes in many countries in western Asia and northern Africa. The US played a key role in the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year as well. Some has raised if NATO bombing in Libya was justified on humanitarian grounds, then why not in Syria?

Syria, however, can not be equated with Libya. There are a number of reasons for that. The military campaign against Libya had sanctions of the UN Security Council and there were no dissenting voices like Russia and China. Key NATO members and the Arab League also supported the move. The geography of Libya was also conducive for NATO air strikes and on the ground too, the foreigners were familiar with some of the anti-Gadaffi rebel leaders, which made then task easier.

In Syria, besides the vetoes exercised by Russia and China, the ground realities, too, are much different. The air defence of Syria is also better than Libya and the ground reality is more complex. Anti-Assad forces are highly fragmented. Syria presents a volatile case where the complex mix of Alawites, who have been siding Assad traditionally, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians, which at any moment can burst into a deadly civil war.

All these factors have basically led to, what Republican Mitt Romney called, a 'policy paralysis' of the Obama Administration. The latter, meanwhile, said the Yemeni model could be followed in Syria. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh ensured a peaceful transition of the power to Abd Rabbuh mansur al-Had under pressure from Saudi Arabia. But the Yemeni model won't work in Syria, for Assad is not dependent on Russia as Yemen is on Saudi Arabia. Moreover, in Yemen's case, the downfall was imminent more for the ruling elite was split in all possible way. In Syria, the elite is united for it knows that Assad's fall will ensure its collapse. So it has stood united and strong.

The Obama administration has also shown little confidence in leading a way out of the entire impasse. A US diplomat has recently said there could be three outcomes in Syria. First, the Annan plan succeeding but that is the most 'unlikely outcome'. Second, Russia backing up the UN pressure against Assad and third, which seems the most probable one, the Syrian crisis escalates into a major turmoil engulfing the entire region. That will be disastrous.

But why should the world's only superpower depend on the mercy of a tyrant like Assad or Russia to carry out its duty? Just sitting idle will neither help it nor the hapless people of Syria. It can surely execute policies with an aim to rescue those being mercilessly treated by the Assad regime. It had not done much to criticise the despotic regime of Hafez al-Assad, late father of the current tyrant, who was equally guilty of ordering massacres.

The US can work towards creating safe zones near Syrian borders with Turkey and Jordan, which is one of its close ally, and already is home to several Syrian refugees. Turkey has expressed its intent to support such safety pockets, which also can be defended militarily. Such zones will not only help in saving lives but also can be gradually transformed into anti-Assad activity bases and put considerable pressure on the Syrian President.

Washington can also adopt a softer but effective approach of equipping Assad's opposition, those ready to trust it, with weapons and intelligence to fight the regime. This could be a time-consuming and blood-spilling move but anyhow the situation in Syria has reached a point of no return. It is always better to try rather than rue missing chances of bombing, which the US establishment often think as the only way to resolve a crisis.

The US must learn from the Afghan and Iraqi experience that military power is not the only solution to any problem, no matter how grave it is. It must come up with political and medium-scale mechanisms and show the world that despots like Assad can be ousted without unleashing any violence.

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